By Alvin Powell
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Harvard Gazette) — When Lilit Garibyan left her native Armenia in 1991, the Eurasian nation was at war with neighboring Azerbaijan, and Garibyan was a 12-year-old who knew she would go back someday, but, she later decided, not before she had something to offer.
Garibyan returned in 2013, bringing medical expertise and high-tech lasers to the capital, Yerevan. On that first trip, she and the two doctors who accompanied her worked long days treating disfiguring skin conditions, including scarring, the bright-red vascular tumor called hemangioma, and the capillary malformation that results in the discoloration known as port-wine stain.
Garibyan, a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, has since visited annually and worked with U.S. and Armenian partners to secure donated lasers, train local physicians to run them, and establish a nonprofit, Face of Angel, to foster the work.
“It was emotional to go back after being away for 22 years, to see the country you came from. I saw my relatives,” Garibyan said. “I hadn’t gone back because I wanted to go back when I could give something back. I didn’t just want to go say, ‘Hi, I’m Lilit. Nice to see you again.’”
Garibyan, a physician-scientist at MGH’s Wellman Center for Photomedicine, said that the targeted conditions can have serious complications, including blindness when they occur near the eye, cognitive issues if in the brain, or bleeding and functional difficulties in affected body parts, particularly the hand and foot. But, she added, the most common — and often most debilitating — effects are often psychological.